What role should government and the law play in protecting people from things that aren't good for their health? Your answer will depend on a lot of factors. And your answer will probably differ from your neighbour's answer and your kid's answer and your doctor's answer.
That's not so surprising. There will always be a wide array of takes on whether the emphasis should be on individual responsibility or or safety dictated from on high. The part of this debate that interests me, though, is that as a whole, society seems to be moving in two very different directions, depending on the substance in question.
You see, when it comes to drugs like marijuana, the appetite for legalization is increasing. Here in Canada, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is making a persuasive case for it (and has blazed the trail for more politician pot-smoking admissions than the media knows what to do with). And according to the National Post, a recent poll shows more than two thirds of Canadians support decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Washington state and Colorado both passed ballot initiatives in the 2012 election making the recreational use of marijuana legal in those jurisdictions -- a decision the Obama administration is, more or less, respecting.
While these trends are fueled in part by a sense that smoking a little pot isn't going to kill you, they also rely on a feeling that the real dangers pot does pose still don't warrant a full-on press to keep it away from everyone. When studies come out reminding us that marijuana is not without its dangers (a recent review of past research suggests particular harm for teenagers and their brain development), the Trudeaus of the world respond that this is all the more reason to legalize the drug. Then we'd have more of a chance of restricting it to adults, he says.
Certainly, relieving marijuana users of the worry of arrest would seem likely to make them more open to seeking treatment for addiction when necessary and being honest with police about violent and exploitative dealers. (I don't know if the biggest supporters of keeping pot illegal are street gangs and drug cartels, but they should be.) Plus, just think of the relief on the criminal justice system such a change would offer.
It comes down to this: More and more people seem to be concluding that while marijuana has its real risks, letting grown-ups make their own choices about it is preferable to, and ultimately less damaging than, having the government assume a protective, prohibitory role.
And yet... Take many of these same people and start talking to them about transfats or super-size sodas -- about Twinkies and Coca Cola -- and the conversation quickly turns to calls for bans and lawsuits and regulation. At just about the same time Colorado was legalizing pot, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was busy trying to ban large sugary drinks.
It's confusing. Why are we increasingly okay with individuals using their own judgment when it comes to psychoative drugs, but frantically frightened about how they will deal with unlimited access to Dr. Pepper? I suspect part of the answer lies with a visceral distrust and dislike of big business. Though the reality is that many of those behind marijuana dealership networks are as unsavoury characters as you're likely to find anywhere (a natural side-effect of prohibition), that's not what people think about when they think about pot sellers. Instead, they imagine quaint hemp products and peaceful hippies. Whereas soda -- well, that's just big business trying to cash in.
As evidence for this mindset, consider the recent push to try to equate food and beverage makers with tobacco companies. The suggestion is that just as "Big Tobacco" contributed to many deaths by using deceptive PR campaigns to keep the public from understanding the links between cigarettes and lung cancer, "Big Food" is using advertising disguised as health information to mislead consumers about its role in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. For example, some critics are pointing to a Coca Cola ad campaign that provides the calorie counts of physical activities (it says people could use the activities to burn off the calories in a bottle of Coke) as evidence Big Soda is taking a page from the Big Tobacco playbook.
Ultimately, the Big Tobacco/Big Food parallel is not very convincing -- the road from smoking to death is a lot more direct and clear cut than the road from 7Up to death, and the possibilities for moderate consumption with no ill effects are far greater in the food and beverage realm than the smoking one. But the fact that the parallel is being made by intelligent, well-educated people and being repeated extensively suggests that it's an appealing thesis, probably because it so satisfyingly casts big business as the powerful bad guy and personal responsibility as the bad guy's lame excuse.
It's a shame that the lure of this narrative is so strong, because the strategy of letting individuals make their own choices about how to handle things that aren't good for them has a lot to recommend it. Or perhaps more to the point, the strategy of having government try to protect people from things that aren't good for them has legions of unintended destructive consequences, many of them more dire than the original ills government is trying to stamp out. We're finally recognizing that when it comes to drugs. Yet we're throwing that same wisdom out the window it when it comes to food and drink.
It's silly to expect logical consistency in public policy or even human behaviour. That's not how people work. But it's still always freshly surprising to watch the dissonance in action.